Frank Furedi

Sociologist, commentator and author of Culture of Fear, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Paranoid Parenting, Therapy Culture, and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.

Really Bad Ideas: the tyranny of science
Scientific evidence is being repackaged as ‘The Science’: a superstitious dogma used to hector us on everything from sex to saving the planet.

Scientists at one of Rome’s most prestigious universities, La Sapienza, are protesting against a planned visit by Pope Benedict XVI this Thursday. The Pope is due officially to open the university’s academic year, but some of the professors of science at the university are not happy. In a letter to the university’s rector, 67 lecturers and professors said it would be ‘incongruous’ for the Pope to visit given his earlier comments on Galileo; while he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Pope said that the Catholic Church’s trial of the great Italian astronomer was ‘reasonable and just’. So, university staff want to block a visit by a religious leader in the name of defending scientific truth and integrity.

This is a striking story: today, it frequently seems as if scientific authority is replacing religious and moral authority, and in the process being transformed into a dogma. At first sight, it appears that science has the last word on all the important questions of our time. Science is no longer confined to the laboratory. Parents are advised to adopt this or that child-rearing technique on the grounds that ‘the research’ has shown what is best for kids. Scientific studies are frequently used to instruct people on how to conduct their relationships and family life, and on what food they should eat, how much alcohol they should drink, how frequently they can expose their skin to the sun, and even how they should have sex. Virtually every aspect of human life is discussed in scientific terms, and justified with reference to a piece of research or by appealing to the judgment of experts.

Of course, as in the past, science still invites criticism and scepticism. Indeed, its authority is continually scrutinised and subjected to a deeply moralistic anti-scientific critique. Scientific experimentation and innovation -  for example, in the areas of stem cell research, cloning and genetic modification - are stigmatised as ‘immoral’ and ‘dangerous’. Moreover, many wonder if there are hidden agendas or interests behind scientific studies, especially those that are used to justify moral or political campaigns. Many people understand that last year’s scientific advice is often contradicted by new findings further down the line. Others are anxious about the rapid pace of scientific advance: they worry about the potential for destruction that might be unleashed by developments in genetic manipulation or nanotechnology.

Many greens blame science and technology for contributing to environmental degradation and to global warming. Indeed, one of the puzzling features of our time is this: the relentless expansion of the authority of science is paralleled by a sense of distrust about science. Anyone old enough to recall the public’s enthusiasm for scientific breakthroughs in the 1950s and 60s will be struck by the more begrudging and even fearful acceptance of science today. The attitude of Western society towards science is intensely contradictory. In the absence of political vision and direction, society continually hides behind scientific authority - but at the same time it does not quite believe that science has the answers, and it worries about the potential rotten fruits of scientific discovery.

Yet whatever misgivings people have about science, its authority is unrivalled in the current period. The formidable influence of scientific authority can be seen in the way that environmentalists now rely on science to back up their arguments. Not long ago, in the 1970s and 80s, leading environmentalists insisted that science was undemocratic, that it was responsible for many of the problems facing the planet. Now, in public at least, their hostility towards science has given way to their embrace and endorsement of science. Today, the environmental lobby depends on the legitimation provided by scientific evidence and expertise. In their public performances, environmentalists frequently use the science in a dogmatic fashion. ‘The scientists have spoken’, says one British-based campaign group, in an updated version of the religious phrase: ‘This is the Word of the Lord.’ ‘This is what the science says we must do’, many greens claim, before adding that the debate about global warming is ‘finished’. This week, David King, the former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, caused a stink by criticising extreme green ‘Luddites’ who are ‘hurting’ the environmentalist cause. Yet when science is politicised, as it has been under the likes of King, who once claimed that ‘the science shows’ that global warming is a bigger threat than terrorism, then it can quite quickly and inexorably be converted into dogma, superstition and prejudice (1). It is the broader politicisation of science that nurtures today’s dogmatic green outlook.

Today, religion and political ideologies no longer inspire significant sections of the public. Politicians find it difficult to justify their work and outlook in the vocabulary of morality. In the Anglo-American world, officials now promote policies on the grounds that they are ‘evidence based’ rather than because they are ‘right’ or ‘good’. In policymaking circles, the language of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ has been displaced by the phrase: ‘The research shows…’

Moral judgments are often edged out even from the most sensitive areas of life. For example, experts use the language of medicine rather than morality to tell young teenagers that having sex is not so much ‘bad’ as bad for their emotional health. So pervasive is the crisis of belief and morality that even religious institutions are affected by it. Fundamentalists no longer simply rely on Biblical texts to affirm their belief in the Creation; today, the invention of ‘creation science’ by Christian fundamentalists in the US is symptomatic of the trend to supplement traditional belief with scientific authority.

Likewise, the anti-abortion movement no longer restricts itself to morally denouncing a medical procedure which they consider to be evil. Now they increasingly rely on scientific and technical expertise to advance their cause. They argue that having an abortion is bad for a woman’s health and is likely to cause post-abortion trauma. The question ‘when does life begin?’ was once a moral issue, bound up in competing views of morality, rights and human consciousness. Today anti-abortion activists appeal to medical research and use a narrowly scientific definition of ‘when life begins’: they argue that because ‘the evidence’ shows that fetuses can survive at 24 weeks, then this demonstrates the unquestionable beginning to life (2).

Despite its formidable intellectual powers, science can only provide a provisional solution to the contemporary crisis of belief. Historically, science emerged through a struggle with religious dogma. A belief in the power of science to discover how the world works should not be taken to mean that science itself is a belief. On the contrary, science depends on an open-ended orientation towards experimentation and the testing of ideas. Indeed, science is an inherently sceptical enterprise, since it respects no authority other than evidence. As Thomas Henry Huxley once declared: ‘The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority as such.’ ‘[S]cepticism is the highest of duties’, said Huxley; ‘blind faith the unpardonable sin’. That is why Britain’s oldest and most respectable scientific institution, the Royal Society, was founded on the motto: ‘On the word of no one.’ The message conveyed in this motto is clear: knowledge about the material world should be based on evidence rather than authority.

The critical spirit embodied in that motto is frequently violated today by the growing tendency to treat science as a belief that provides an unquestionable account of the Truth. Indeed, it is striking that the Royal Society recently dropped the phrase ‘On the word of no one’ from its website, while its former president, Lord May, prefers to use the motto ‘Respect the facts’ these days (see The Royal Society’s motto-morphosis, by Ben Pile and Stuart Blackman). Many religious leaders, politicians and environmentalists have little interest in engaging in the voyage of discovery through scientific experimentation. Instead they often appear to be in the business of politicising science, or more accurately, moralising it. For example, Al Gore has claimed that scientific evidence offers (inconvenient) Truths.

Such science has more in common with the art of divination than the process of experimentation. That is why science is said to have a fixed and unyielding, and thus unquestionable, quality. Frequently, Gore and others will prefix the term science with the definite article, ‘the’. So Sir David Read, vice-president of the Royal Society, recently said: ‘The science very clearly points towards the need for us all - nations, businesses and individuals - to do as much as possible, as soon as possible, to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.’ Unlike ‘science’, this new term - ‘The Science’ - is a deeply moralised and politicised category. Today, those who claim to wield the authority of The Science are really demanding unquestioning submission.

The slippage between a scientific fact and moral exhortation is accomplished with remarkable ease in a world where people lack the confidence to speak in the language of right and wrong. But turning science into an arbiter of policy and behaviour only serves to confuse matters. Science can provide facts about the way the world works, but it cannot say very much about what it all means and what we should do about it. Yes, the search for truth requires scientific experimentation and the discovery of new facts; but it also demands answers about the meaning of those facts, and those answers can only be clarified through moral, philosophical investigation and debate.

If science is turned into a moralising project, its ability to develop human knowledge will be compromised. It will also distract people from developing a properly moral understanding of the problems that face humanity in the twenty-first century. Those who insist on treating science as a new form of revealed truth should remember Pascal’s words: ‘We know the truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart.’

(1) The war on hot air, Guardian, 12 January 2008

(2) See Abortion: stop hiding behind The Science, by Jennie Bristow, 22 October 2007

First published by spiked, 15 January 2008